Public Schools

Gates Foundation Takes Another Hair-Raising Stab at Fixing America's Schools


\”If initially you don't succeed, try, repeat the process.\”

Bill Gates might have muttered these words to himself because he took the podium last Thursday to address the Council of Great City Schools. Since 2000, the balance and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested heavily in the look for a method to make sure \”all children in America-get an excellent education.\” They have used immense resources to push new educational strategies into our children's schools, found they did not work or could not be scaled up, abandoned them, and moved blithely on to the next experiment. Now, it's time to move on again.

Valerie Strauss described the Foundation's approach in a recent Washington Post column: \”Gates is definitely an innovator, and innovators prefer to try things and move ahead if something fails. In business, that can work well, but it is difficult to negotiate in education, where children are the main focus and experimentation can be difficult and result in unintended consequences that may be harmful.\” Previous efforts have included \”small schools,\” new data-driven teacher evaluation systems, the most popular Core curriculum, and charter schools.

Gates describes this new effort, which involves a five-year resolve for put $1.7 billion into public schools, as growing from the lessons learned from 17 years of experimenting with American education, both successes and failures.

\”Over time,\” Gates says, \”we realized that what made probably the most successful schools successful-large or small-was their teachers, their relationships with students, as well as their high expectations of student achievement.\”

Based about this finding, the foundation's new strategy will appear for improvement coming from \”locally-driven solutions recognized by networks of faculties.\” The Gates Foundation's resources will \”support their efforts to make use of data-driven continuous learning and evidence-based interventions to improve student achievement-about 60 % of the will eventually offer the growth and development of new curricula and networks of schools that work together to identify local problems and solutions-and use data to drive continuous improvement.\”

In an essential shift of emphasis, all but 15 % of this new investment is going to be targeted toward traditional public schools.

This leads Strauss to wonder what new \”medicine (or poison) he's offering.\”

He said the majority of the new money-about 60 percent-will be used to develop new curriculums and \”networks of schools\” that work together to recognize local problems and solutions, using data to drive \”continuous improvement.\” He explained that over the following many years, about 30 such networks would be supported, though he didn't describe exactly what they're. The very first grants will go to high-needs schools and districts in 6 to 8 states, which went unnamed.

Though there wasn't lots of detail on exactly how the money would be spent, Gates, a believer in using big data to solve problems, repeatedly said foundation grants provided to schools included in this new effort would be driven by data. \”Each [school] network will be backed by a team of education experts skilled in continuous improvement, coaching and data collection and analysis,\” he said, an emphasis that's bound to worry critics already worried about the amount of student data already collected and the way it is used for high-stakes decisions.

Diane Ravitch asks, \”What is he up to? Big data? Common Core? Data mining?\” This, as we know, is not at all a stretch. The death within one year of birth of the Gates-funded inBloom, a hundred-million-dollar student data-mining initiative by which parents rebelled and organized, remains a resource of wonder for people who value the on-the-ground potential of that kind of money.

A major critique from the Foundation's previous educational initiatives is they were top-down, imposing the Foundation's view on schools and ignoring the voices of those nearest the floor. Not every share Ravitch's view, however. Megan Tompkins-Stange, a public policy professor in the University of Michigan, told Education Week \”she was somewhat surprised that Gates said the foundation should serve more like a \”catalyst of good ideas than an inventor of ideas.\”

To me, it says that he and also the Gates Foundation leadership has perhaps listened to a few of the criticism of the more top-down, outside expert-driven approach to philanthropy in education. I possibly could not have predicted the new approach they'd take would heighten the main focus on communities having more autonomy.

While the Foundation might have learned it needs to work more collaboratively with communities and their schools, it isn't clear when they have been learned other lessons which are just as important. First, will they be ready to help their school partners when new programs aren't effective out very well? Their business design has been to create a strategy, fund its beginnings, and then, if it doesn't meet expectations, cut their losses and move on. But public schools don't move on; they remain accountable for educating the children of the community, and they should be in a position to recover from those failed efforts.

Partnering with the Gates Foundation isn't free, either. New educational approaches change the culture of schools. Matching money is often necessary, and to keep efforts ongoing, causes of continued funding should be found to satisfy costs following the Foundation's grant ends. Changes might be needed to local and state laws, too.

What when the educational outcomes aren't successful? Will the Gates Foundation stay for the long term, helping their partners recover so their students aren't left to pay for the ongoing cost of failure? Pedro Noguera, a professor of education in the University of California, La, described his doubts in comments to EdWeek: \”Especially in high-need communities, it takes lots of money and people to sustain change. I still hope these are not investments in just a single strand, that if it does not pan out, they move on. Hopefully, they're gaining knowledge from past efforts to more smartly leverage change.\”

It is also unclear whether the Foundation originates to recognize that educational improvement cannot originate from changing only what goes on inside schools. Poverty and chaotic communities are critical factors in determining how children learn and the futures they'll face as adults. In the remarks announcing their new direction, Gates recognizes our schools' racial disparities.

When disaggregated by race, we have seen two Americas. One where white students perform like the very best in the world-with achievement comparable to countries like Finland and Korea. And another America, where Black and Latino students perform comparably to the students within the lowest performing OECD countries, such as Chile and Greece.

But there's no certainty he connects these outcomes towards the persistent, growing economic inequity that is not caused by struggling schools, only one of their causes.

The power the Gates Foundation is excellent because our schools aren't adequately funded, specifically in those communities facing the greatest challenges. With this particular power should come that responsibility and accountability that has been missing.

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